Hammer Films and SherlockHolmes seem such a perfect match that it’s both a surprise and a pity that they didn’t make an on-going series of films about the master detective. Holmes is, by default, a part of the Universal gothic series that Hammer would plunder in the 1950s, and the stories seem part of that whole vintage horror world – even if they were not actually horror stories. The whole idea seems perfect for Hammer as they started their gothic horror series, and Peter Cushing was an ideal Holmes (as he showed in further appearances for the BBC and, in later life, Hammer copycats Tyburn Films) – but as a company with a ruthless eye on profits, Hammer was unwilling to run with unsuccessful ideas – and the Holmes movie did not do the box office of the Dracula and Frankenstein films.
Of course, if Hammer was only going to film one of the novels, then The Hound of the Baskervilles is the obvious one to choose – not only is it the best known Holmes story, but it’s also the one that comes closest to the gothic horrors that Hammer were grinding out at the time. It might not actually be a supernatural tale, but it’s certainly full-blooded horror, and director Terence Fisher – the man behind the first wave of `hammer Horror and their go-to director of the time – sets out his stall from the opening scene, a flashback featuring arrogant, morally bankrupt nobleman Sir Hugo Baskerville (David Oxley on fine scenery chewing form), who is thwarted in his efforts to rape a serving girl, and so pursues her across the moors and stabs her to death before falling prey to a giant, unseen hound of Hell.
This story is relayed by the pompous Doctor Mortimer (Francis De Wolff) to a seemingly disinterested Sherlock Holmes (Peter Cushing) and more patient Doctor Watson (Andre Morrell), and he goes on to explain that Sir Charles Baskerville has recently died in similar, unexplained circumstances and that the Baskerville heir, Sir Henry (Christopher Lee) is due to arrive in London to claim the estate. Believing Sir Henry’s life to be in danger, Mortimer convinces Holmes to take on the case, leading the detective to travel to Dartmoor and Baskerville Hall, where assorted red herrings are thrown up as the detective unravels the mystery and uncovers the truth behind the Hell Hound.
I’m going to assume that anyone reading this will be fairly familiar with the plot of The Hound of the Baskervilles – even if you haven’t read Conan Doyle’s novel, you must have seen at least one film adaptation. Hammer’s film is interesting in that although it initially follows the novel’s plot quite closely – in many ways, it is a much more faithful adaptation than other Hammer films of the era – it also makes several significant changes to the plot. These are often to ‘horror’ up the story and add more incident – Sir Henry has a close encounter with a tarantula, for instance, and the escaped convict Seldon, who falls victim to the hound in the original story, is here found mutilated in a ritualistic way. The film also rather audaciously changes the identity of the main villain of the piece, ensuring that even those viewers intimately familiar with the story would be kept on their toes.
To Hammer’s chagrin, the film failed to receive the coveted ‘X’ rating from the British censors despite these lurid additions – it may have been that the ‘A’ certificate may have bee due to the literary providence of the Holmes stories, but it contributed towards the film’s disappointing box office performance (audiences associated Hammer with adults only horror) and so robbed us of further Holmes adventures from the company. This is a pity, because The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of the very best Holmes films. Made in 1958, when the company was on a roll, this is full-blooded, fast paced drama at its finest, with some remarkable visual flourishes – the lighting is pretty incredible, as vivid, gothic and exaggerated as in any Euro horror film on the 1960s or 70s, and the combination of location filming and sound stage sets (often recognisable as recycled sets from Dracula, made earlier that year) gives the film a sense of hyper-reality. Certainly, the changes and additions help the film, for the most part, making it faster paced and more dramatic than most adaptations, and James Bernard’s score – which also lifts a segment of the Dracula soundtrack – is one of his better efforts.
But beyond the production values and Peter Bryan’s lively screenplay, this film especially benefits from excellent performances all round. Cushing is the consummate Holmes – spiky, rude, driven and impatient, he’s not the most likeable of characters, but Cushing humanises him and gives him a real edge. Morrell does a fine job of rehabilitating Watson from the bumbling character that Nigel Bruce had developed (much as I love the Rathbone / Bruce films, you always wondered why on Earth Holmes would put up with such a buffoon) and Lee is better than you might expect in a fairly thankless role – Sir Henry is neither hero nor monster, and Lee would seem to be wasted in the part, but he does an excellent job (and even gets to be a romantic lead for once). Maria Landi as fiery Spanish femme fatale Cecile (one of the film’s innovations!) is suitably seductive and bitter, and the supporting cast that includes John Le Mesurier. Ewan Solan and a scene stealing Miles Malleson are all excellent. This might well be the most solid cast ever assembled in a Hammer film, and it benefits immensely from their presence.